In 1972, Elizabeth Holtzman, a 31-year-old woman who had never run for public office, ran for Congress. Her rival mocked her campaign, the Democratic political “boss” dismissed her, and a major newspaper focused on her height and weight instead of the substance of her platform. Undeterred, Liz went on to win that race, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. It was the first of many glass ceilings she “continually butted up against” and subsequently smashed.
So in celebration of her 75th birthday, here are 8 things should know about this pioneering woman who spent two decades in elected office confronting what she described in a recent op-ed as “an entire political system and culture that devalued women and discriminated against them in ways both obvious and subtle.”
1. Elizabeth Holtzman was born in Brooklyn, NY on August 11 in 1941. After high school, she went on to graduate from Radcliffe College (magna cum laude) in 1962, and then earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1965. Liz was admitted to the New York bar in 1966 and began practicing law in New York City.
2. In 1972, a then 31-year-old Liz made the decision to run for Congress… she had never run for public office before, had no support from any established organization, and her opponent, 84-year-old incumbent Emanuel Celler, had represented Brooklyn in Congress for 50 years. She noted, “He was an institution—the most senior member of the House of Representatives and the chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee.” Despite her cause seeming hopeless, Liz won that race and in doing sobecame the youngest woman ever elected to Congress (a record she held for 42 years, until 2014). To give the game-changing impact of her historic first even greater context, when Liz took office in 1973, representing New York’s 16th congressional district, only a handful of women served in the House (16 out of 435), and there were no women in the Senate.
3. During her four terms as a U.S. Congresswoman (1973 to 1981), Liz captured national attention for her role on the House Judiciary Committee* during the Watergate scandal (*Liz and Barbara Jordan were the first Democratic women in history to be appointed to serve on the House Judiciary Committee); chaired the Immigration and Refugees Subcommittee (dealing directly with foreign governments); co-founded the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues (successfully legislating numerous women’s rights laws); and authored many laws, including those dealing with Nazi war crimes.
“Politics helps determine the kind of society we’d like to live in. When women aren’t an equal participant in that conversation, it has real-world consequences.”
4. After eight years in the House, Liz decided to run for the Senate and the personal attacks from the media came fast and furious. She recounted that the worst example of this was in a New York Times Magazine story about the four Democratic candidates in the New York primary. “The main question the article raised about me was how I would look in a low-cut evening gown. No such qualification had ever been set for a man.” Although Liz won the primary—and made history again as the first woman in New York to win a major party’s nomination for Senate—she lost the general election.
5. Liz then decided to run for District Attorney of Kings County (Brooklyn). Despite being told “DA is not a job for a woman,” she won the election, becomingthe first woman elected DA in New York City. Liz served as DA from 1982 to 1989, during which time she pioneered new strategies for the prosecution of rape and environmental crimes.
6. In 1990, Liz ran for New York City Comptroller, and became the first woman elected to that position. As Comptroller (1990-1993), she authored a bill that was signed into law, which holds gun manufacturers liable for injuries caused by illegal guns.
7. After 22 years in government, including 20 as an elected official, Liz resumed the practice of law in New York and is still practicing today.
8. In 2013, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel appointed Liz to the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel, which reviewed and assessed the handling of sexual assaults in the military, and developed recommendations for reforms.